America’s nuclear energy future
In his inaugural address on January 21, 2009, President Barack Obama promised that “we’ll restore science to its rightful place.” Mark that down as a broken promise, as far as a key element of America’s nuclear energy future is concerned.
Obama’s remark on science was a swipe at his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose administration was frequently criticized, often with good reason, for allowing ideology to trump science on subjects as varied as stem cell research, the morning-after birth control pill and the environment.
In contrast, Obama’s most prominent move to shelve a major scientific project — The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository — has been driven not by ideology but by a toxic combination of Nimbyism (from “not in my backyard”), electoral politics and high-handed leadership of America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That combination led to the closure of a project that, over its long gestation period, involved more than 2,500 scientists and has so far cost $15 billion.
Power-generation and nuclear waste are not usually subjects of great public interest but they made headlines and sparked renewed debate in the wake of last March’s nuclear accident in Japan, where spent fuel rods (nuclear waste) posed a greater radiation threat than the core of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Those rods were stored in pools of constantly circulating water — the system used at most U.S. nuclear plants — and dangerously overheated when an earthquake interrupted power supply to the pools.
Over the past few weeks, the steadily increasing waste from more than 100 nuclear reactors and the repository once meant to hold most of it deep underground, have been the subject of a string of reports and congressional hearings. They shed light not only on the need for a decision on what best to do with the waste but also on the fact that science on this issue has not been restored to the “rightful place” Obama promised in his eloquent inaugural speech.
According to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than 75,000 metric tons of nuclear waste are now held at sites scattered around the country, an amount that is expected to double by 2055. What’s the best option to storing these hazardous substances? “A geologic repository is widely considered the only currently feasible option for permanently disposing nuclear waste,” the GAO’s leading expert on energy matters, Mark Gaffigan, told a Congressional subcommittee.
It was called in response to a report by the GAO, the research arm of Congress, which discussed several options for storing nuclear waste and spelled out the reason the Department of Energy shut down Yucca mountain — not because it was deemed unsafe but because it lacked public support in Nevada. That’s not surprising — Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, has waged a relentless campaign for more than two decades to kill the project, saying it was unsafe. That’s his opinion, not universally shared by scientists.
HIGH-COST ELECTORAL VOTES
When he was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Obama came down on the side of Reid, a stand that helped him beat his Republican rival John McCain, the Arizona senator firmly in favor of Yucca, and win the hotly contested state’s five electoral votes. Again, politics trumped science. Those five votes must count among the most expensive in American electoral history. Soon after taking office, Obama pulled the plug on Yucca mountain by writing it out of the budget. The project’s offices in Las Vegas were shut, the staff fired.
Up on the mountain, 4,950 feet from the Mojave desert, on the edge of a former nuclear test site 95 miles from Las Vegas, the gate has been closed to the entry of the five-mile tunnel drilled into the mountain to serve as a graveyard for nuclear waste.
But the project isn’t quite dead, yet. There is a pending lawsuit by the states of South Carolina and Washington against the Obama administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Their argument: Yucca was a congressionally mandated program (the legislation dates back to 1982) and cannot be killed by administrative fiat. While a Washington appeals court ponders the issue, a Blue Ribbon Commission set up last year continues to ponder “recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.”
The commission, which has until next January to complete its work, came up with draft recommendations in May. They include this one: “The United States should proceed expeditiously to develop one or more permanent deep geological facilities for the safe disposal of high-level nuclear waste … Geologic disposal in a mined repository is the most promising and technically accepted option available for safely isolating high-level nuclear wastes for very long periods of time.”
In other words: Something just like Yucca as long as it’s not Yucca. The commission did not say in whose backyard they were looking to open such a site.
You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com.